Curious Questions: How likely are you to be killed by a falling coconut?

Our resident curious questioner Martin Fone poses (and answers) another head scratcher - or should we say, head banger?

Blame it on Robinson Crusoe, if you like, but there is definitely something romantic about the prospect of being stranded on a desert island, if only temporarily, possibly the perfect antidote to the stress and strain of modern life. Metaphorically marooning a guest, they weren’t called celebs in those days, was the simple idea behind what is Britain’s longest-running radio programme, Desert Island Discs, now in its seventy-eighth year and proclaimed by a panel of broadcasting industry experts in February 2019 as “the greatest radio programme of all time”.

‘A coconut can fall and hit you on the head, and if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead’

I’m so far down the pecking order that I don’t expect an invitation to appear any time soon but I do find it fun to while away some time concocting my list of eight recordings to take with me, my choice of book, and my one luxury item. My luxury item is decided in a matter of seconds and doesn’t change however many times I repeat the exercise. It is a reinforced safety helmet. You see, I’m frightened of being struck on the head by a falling coconut as, naturally, my island will be a patch of white sand, complete with a few fecund coconut palms to give me shelter and succour.

A sign reading "Danger falling coconut zone" hanging on a palm tree

But my phobia tells me that the coconuts hanging above my head like the sword of Damocles pose a danger. The American poet, Frederick Seidel, got it spot on in his poem, Coconut. “A coconut”, he wrote, “can fall and hit you on the head,/ and if it falls from high enough can kind of knock you dead/ dead beneath the coconut palms, that’s the life for me”. I may disagree with his calm acceptance of this fate but, I suppose, it is better than, to use that quaint Irish phrase, turning up one’s toes to the roots of the daisies.

It’s all about the laws of physics, a subject I never got on with at school but I remember that we spent an inordinate amount of time (t) calculating the velocity (v) that a ball would travel back down to earth, courtesy of gravity (g), after it had been thrown up into the air to a certain height (h). If I had known there was a practical application to what seemed an abstruse calculation,

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I would have paid more attention in class, but it seems that a coconut falling from a 35-metre tall tree would be travelling at 80 kilometres an hour and packing more than a metric tonne of force by the time it hit you on the head. Whether it hit you directly on the cranium or a glancing blow could be a matter of life or death. It certainly makes you think.

‘The good doctor calculated that the annual death toll was around 150 people a year’

So, how many people are killed a year by falling coconuts?

To illustrate the point that you shouldn’t always believe what you find on the internet, I came across an article in the November 1984 edition of the Journal of Trauma by a Canadian doctor by the name of Peter Barrs, entitled Injuries due to falling coconuts. The good doctor, who had spent time practising in Papua New Guinea and Angola and seen a regular stream of patients with injuries caused by falling coconuts, calculated that the annual death toll was around 150 people a year.

Once a “fact” like that breaks loose on the world-wide web, there is no telling where it will end up. Reputable newspapers like the Chicago Times began to run stories to the effect that coconuts were “10 times more likely to kill you than sharks”. In November 2010 newspapers and broadcasters reported that the Indian government had ordered all the coconuts to be removed from the trees at the Ghandi museum in Mumbai prior to the US President’s visit “for fear that a nut would descend on to the head of President Obama”.

The curious thing about Barss’ paper was that nowhere did he detail the basis of his assertion, other than giving us the “bald” fact. When his claims were put under scientific scrutiny, it soon became apparent that they were based on foundations of sand.

True enough, he had treated patients in both countries for serious injuries caused by falling coconuts but instead of trawling through lists of coconut fatalities, he simply surmised that given the millions of nuts in the world, some people must be killed each year and 150 was as good a number as any. Tellingly, no one in his practice area had been killed this way.

No need for a highway to the danger zone – you‘re already there.

Some unfortunates, though, have been killed by falling coconuts. In 1777, a concubine of King Tetui in the Cook Islands was struck by “a falling green nut” while in 1833, in what is now Sri Lanka, four people were killed by falling coconuts. Given all the perils he had faced and could anticipate that war would throw at him, a US Marine could have not anticipated, when he took a nap under a tree near Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, an island in the Solomon Island chain, in January 1943 that a nut would strike him on the head and kill him but it did.

The answer to our question, it would seem, is that some are killed this way but not on the scale that Dr Barss was suggesting.

Mind you, getting a coconut open can be just as dangerous. In December 1923 a man from the Pennsylvanian town of New Castle was struggling to open a coconut and hit upon the bright idea of smashing it with the butt end of his revolver. Unfortunately, the revolver was loaded and discharged, hitting him in the abdomen. He died from his injuries.

Sign of coconut fall in a park. Beware of falling coconuts

Of course, the risk can be mitigated by removing ripe coconuts before they have chance to heed the call of gravity. I am always astonished by the skill, bravery and dexterity of those who shin up the trees to fell the nuts and thin out the fronds. None, though, is faster than George “Johnny” Iona, otherwise known as Captain White Chocolate, who holds the world record, scrambling up an eight-metre tree in just 5.62 seconds, set at the Helva Tu’aro Ma’ohi sports event in Tahiti in July 2017.

I think I will still hang on to my safety helmet. You can’t be too careful.

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